Wansink Link Roundup

I was away for most of this week so I’m just getting to this now, but Brian Wansink has announced he’s retiring at the end of this academic year after a series of investigations in to his work.  I’ve blogged about the Wansink saga previously (also here and here and here) , and have even had to update old posts to remove research of his that I referenced.

Christopher B passed along a good summary article from the AP , which I was pleased to see included a note that they had frequently used him as a source for stories. The New York Times followed suit, and this article mentions that he was cited as a source in at least 60 articles since 1993.

While the initial coverage was mostly shock, I’ve been pleased to see how many subsequent articles point to the many bigger problems in science (and science reporting) that led to Wansink’s rise.

The New York Times article I just cited delves in to the statistical games that the field of nutrition often plays to get significant results, and how the press generally reports them uncritically. For those of you who have been following this story, you’ll remember that this whole drama was kicked off by a blog post Wansink wrote where he praised a grad student for finding publishable results in a data set he admitted looked like it had yielded nothing. While this wouldn’t be a problem if he had admitted that’s what he was doing, his papers never corrected for multiple comparisons or clarified that they were running hundreds of different comparisons to try to find something significant.

The Atlantic put up a good piece about the “scientist as celebrity” angle, discussing how we should think about scientists who get a lot of attention for their work. The “buzz cycle”, where we push findings we like and scientists respond by trying to generate findings that will be likable. This is a good point, as many people who don’t know Wansink’s name know of his findings (health halos, use small plates, we eat more from bottomless soup bowls, etc).

This Washington Post op-ed has an interesting discussion of science education, and wonders if we did more to educate kids about scientific mistakes and fraud if we’d be more skeptical about scientific findings in general. It’s an interesting thought…we do hear science mostly presented as an unbroken march towards truth, not always hearing how many side roads there are along the way.

Overall it’s a fascinating and sad story, made slightly worse by the fact that it appears to have come to a head at the same time that Wansink’s mother died and his father broke his hip. While this is a good reminder to limit any gratuitous potshots against him as a person, it still raises many interesting discussion points about how we got here. Any other articles, feel free to pass them along!

Data Driven Apps for Everyday Problems

Please note: I am in no way affiliated with any of these apps. I just got them recently and have been using them, and thought they were fairly interesting for people who like to think about data or in a systematic fashion. In other words, I get no money for this.

One of the lovelier parts of living in 2018 is the ability to Google solutions to any problem. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of poking around for apps that might keep me organized in a few different areas, and these are some good ones I’ve found. To the shock of no one, all of them are pretty checklist or data driven. Since I suspect many readers of this blog probably think similarly to me, I thought I’d throw the suggestions out there just in case they would be helpful to others.

Cleaning:

While I have no idea how to pronounce the title of the Tody app, I love how it works. Basically, you select a list of rooms you have in your house, then the app recommends various cleaning activities that should be done for each. You add the ones that make sense to your list, set what type of cleaner you are (relaxed, standard or proactive) and it generates a list for you of what you should be doing.

The fun part is that each task has a status, so it’s sorted by importance. Tasks you should be doing often (like a quick tidy up of the living room) get overdue faster, so they go to the top of the list. Tasks that are due less often (like cleaning out the closets) get overdue more slowly. Basically “overdue” works by percentage, not just the number of days. I knocked off all the basic tasks yesterday, so now my list looked like this:

Note: I downloaded the app 7 days ago, and set a bunch of things up as “due” which is why they are all identical.

Anyway, I like this because if I have a few minutes to clean, this helps me spread out my efforts. I generally fall in to a bit of a pattern with cleaning, hitting some things frequently and other things only when I think “oh gosh, that looks really gross”. Once you check something off it goes to the back of the line, but then reminds you again once it comes due. You can do this for both cleaning tasks and various “replace” type tasks. As you can see, it suggested I set a reminder for changing my toothbrush (I go to the dentist on Monday) and I have it set up for my water filter as well.

My favorite part though is that you can create a family account. Both my husband and I downloaded it, and we now share the list. We haven’t used it, but you can also assign tasks to people, and compare effort. I’d imagine this would be good for assigning chores to kids.

There’s a couple other fun features: you can see which room collectively needs the most attention, you can sort by room, you can add your own tasks with frequency as you think of them, and you can add outdoor or car related things as well. Pretty fun, and good for those of us who have no memory/sense of when housework should be done and instead are just sort of careening. Also, you can run reports and checking a box is just satisfying. Good stuff.

Price-wise, it’s a one time cost of $6.99 for each person who downloads it.

Workouts:

I’m still playing with this one, but Freeletics seems pretty fun. It’s a workout app (mostly high intensity interval workouts) that uses an AI coach to give you a personalized workout plan. Every week you record how you did on the previous workouts and how much time you have next week, and it generates you a new plan. While this seems kind of basic, it’s actually nice not to have to put any thought in to it.

I think using your own basic data (I have limited free time this week, last week’s workouts were too easy) to drive what should be assigned is nice and a good use of feedback loops. It ensures you’re taking a break when needed, and pushing when you can.

The subscription price is a little high: $35 for 3 months. However, paying that price gives you access to three different apps: the running one, the bodyweight workouts one, and a gym program. I look forward to playing with this more often.

Eating:

I don’t really like apps that give you a meal plan, but I do get a kick out of checklists. Dr Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen Checklist  is based on the book “How Not to Die” by Michael Greger, and lets you check off each serving of the recommended foods you’ve had that day.

The only issues with this one is that Dr Greger is vegan based, so it’s probably not fun for anyone who’s not in to that.

Overall: I think the number one thing I’m getting out of these apps is a lot of data about what a creature of habit I am. I clean the same few things over and over, am at a loss for how to adjust when my workouts don’t go according to plan, and focus on the same few healthy foods. Having somewhere to track what I’m focusing on and (by default) point out what I may be missing is helpful. If anyone has any other apps they like, I’d be interested in hearing them!

 

What I’m Reading: August 2018

Well it’s summer and we’ve had one heck of a heat wave up here, with humidity that I heard dubbed “sweatpants heat”. It’s gross. I’m particularly miserable about the whole thing because I’ve caught a terrible cold, which does not play well with the heat/humidity. I was thinking about the unique pain that summer colds bring, and decided to Google around to see if there was any research on this. Turns out there is! It appears that summer colds are actually caused by different viruses than winter colds, so the feeling that they’re a little different is a real one.

In other important news, this website went through and used the water displacement method to figure out the air to chip ratio for most common brands of chips. The results are oddly fascinating:

The Assistant Village Idiot did an interesting post about media bias, in the form of compiling Time and Newsweek covers of Presidents from Ford on. A quick look gives you a feel of how each President was portrayed. I previously might have argued that magazine covers didn’t effect me that much, but ever since I found out that I thought Billy Graham died years before he did (probably) because of a TV Guide cover I’ve been less confident about this. Donna B raises a good question in the comments about the covers given to those who ran for the presidency but lost during those years.

Some surprisingly bad news: a huge randomized control trial of state sponsored pre-K shows the positive effect is only present at the end of the pre-K year, and turns negative by 3rd grade with kids who went to free pre-K performing worse in math and science than their peers who stayed home. This is surprising as I thought the worst case scenario would be “no effect”. The study authors have two theories for the results. First, it’s possible some kids just do better at home. Second and not unrelated, they note that more of the kids in the pre-K program ended up in special needs classes (remember, they were randomly assigned to pre-K vs home) and they wonder if some slower to develop kids got inappropriately tagged as special needs. It appears this early designation then followed them and they may have eventually held back beyond what was needed. Still a good data point in the “not everything that sounds like a good idea is one” train of thought.

I’ve been thinking a lot about viruses and other various pathogens recently, and the theories that they impact chronic disease more than we realize at the moment. For example, a recent Harvard study suggests that the herpes virus may help precipitate Alzheimer’s Disease. Celiac disease may be triggered by a candida infection. Some strains of intestinal bacteria may make it really hard for people to lose weight. The mechanisms for this are interesting and varied. The Alzheimer’s theory hinges on the idea that amyloid-B (the thing that ends up clogging up the neurons in Alzheimers patients) is produced to try to fight off HHV-6 and HSV-1, but something gets out of control and it takes over. Candida and gluten apparently bind to the same site on the walls of the intestines, so the theory is the body starts trying to fight off candida but produces antibodies to everything binding at that site. Gut bacteria that thrives on sugar or other “bad” treats might release toxins when you stop eating it that make you feel miserable until you resume previous eating patterns.  One statement I read somewhere while reading this stuff stuck with me “maybe our pathogens didn’t go away when we invented antibiotics and vaccines, maybe they just got less deadly and more subtle”. I’m completely fascinated by these theories, though we’ll see if they pan out.

 

The Carlisle Method: One Year Later

Every once in a while the traffic on an old post goes through the roof, and I realize something interesting must have happened. This week it was my Carlisle Method post, which I appreciated because I had been meaning to check back in on that whole situation.

For those of you who didn’t read the initial post, here’s the overview:
An anesthesiologist came up with a neat statistical way of checking for data fraud. Rather than focus on the flashy results and conclusions of papers, he focused on the characteristics of the test group vs control group and looked for evidence that they weren’t random. The theory is that people committing fraud would mostly focus on their conclusions, but might get sloppy when reporting things like subject age and such.  He publicly named the papers he thought were most questionable, and investigations were launched.

A year later, some of the results are in. The New England Journal of Medicine announced their results, and they actually are a bit encouraging. Out of the 11 papers they analyzed, 5 had mislabeled “standard error” as “standard deviation” so the Carlisle Method was picking up on the error. 5 papers were reviewed and found to be okay, and they suspect some limitations in the Carlisle Method itself had wrongly flagged them.

One paper however, is getting lots of attention. It turns out that a major paper on heart health and the Mediterranean Diet wasn’t quite done as reported. While it had been reported as a randomized trial, a bit of digging showed that about 20% of its participants  were actually “cluster randomized”.  The authors reanalyzed the data using the remaining 80% of people, and noted that this didn’t change the conclusions, but it did make them less statistically compelling. The paper was retracted and replaced with a new version that correctly covers the methods.

Now all of these errors may appear to be small, but they do raise a bit of a cause for concern. There is an assumption that all statistics will be checked thoroughly before papers go to press, but I think this highlights that sometimes errors get through. Particularly if a paper has a big splashy finding, it’s possible that errors will not be reviewed. The NEJM shared this concern, and is implementing a statistics course for their editors and giving extra scrutiny to published papers.

More concerning than the NEJM’s findings however, is that the other 7 journals who had papers on the list haven’t completed their investigations yet, said there were no problems with any of the papers, or didn’t respond. It seems a little unlikely that only the most prestigious journal involved had any errors, so it’s unfortunate the other journals aren’t doing more.

More on the varied reactions to the Mediterranean diet study here and here.

Vitamin D Deficiency: A Supplement Story

I think I mentioned a little while back that I hadn’t been feeling so great and was going to slow my posting down for a bit. A decent amount of that “not feeling great” thing was related to a rather alarming Vitamin D deficiency I had unfortunately developed, and have since been treated for. This involved taking prescription strength megadoses, which helped almost instantaneously. It was lovely. As my doctor said “this is the best possible outcome. You came in with all sorts of symptoms and one simple thing fixed it.” I fully agreed.

It was an interesting thing to have happen because a few years ago another family member of mine had asked their doctor for a Vitamin D test and gotten an eye roll and a “that’s not really a thing we do any more”. Googling a bit, it seemed like there were nearly as many articles talking about how you shouldn’t take Vitamin D as those advising that you should. In classic “vitamins as fads” fashion, I noted that most of the pro-Vitamin D articles were from around 2010, and the anti-ones were much more recent. Combining my own experience with that of Dr Google, it got me thinking about how trends in supplements (or other medications or health behaviors for that matter) get going and why people then turn on them.

Step 1: Something that is under-recognized makes people feel terrible.

According to the American Association of Family Physicians, Vitamin D deficiency can result in “Common manifestations of vitamin D deficiency are symmetric low back pain, proximal muscle weakness, muscle aches, and throbbing bone pain elicited with pressure over the sternum or tibia.” Me? I had all of those symptoms. It sucked. I couldn’t sleep. Doing any activity left me sore and tired.

Now since Vitamin D deficiency is pretty well known, my doctor tested for it right away along with several other things. However, if it was not a well recognized deficiency and she had to fumble around a bit before she got there, I could have been living like that for months or years.

Step 2: People who feel terrible feel better, and are excited about their miracle cure.

Now I am pretty darn excited about my turn around on Vitamin D, as I think anyone would be. Again though, Vitamin D is a pretty well known deficiency, and lots of people I talk to have had the same experience or know someone who has. Thus, my compulsion to “evangelize” this solution is limited. A bad thing happened, the medical establishment addressed it immediately, and I am a happy camper. No real story there.

However, if I’d been feeling that way for months and my doctor had overlooked it, I’d want EVERYONE to know what happened to prevent the suffering of others.

Step 3: People who hear about this start to wonder if it’s their issue too.

Lots of people feel fatigued, or have aches and pains. The number who might hear my story and wonder if this Vitamin D deficiency were causing their might be much wider than the circle who would go in to their doctors and complain of the same thing. This isn’t bad, but it does mean that some of those people are going to have much milder symptoms than the ones I experienced, and those could be something else.

For example, what finally drove me to my doctor was being in so much discomfort that I was barely sleeping at night. I walk to and from the train every day (about 1.5 miles each way), and for a variety of reasons (including a weekend) I skipped about 4 days. When I started walking again, I was so sore I could barely stand when I got home. I felt like I’d run a marathon. That’s when I realized something was SERIOUSLY not okay. I’d been ignoring aches and pains for a few months, but you can’t ignore that.

So my issue got so severe I had to pay attention, but those who I tell about it are sort of having the information solicited. Two different groups.

Step 4: Some people figure if some is good than more is better.

There’s a lot of debate over what an optimal Vitamin D level is, but it will not surprise you to know that I was not in the grey area. I found this chart (unfortunately no source) that shows some of the controversy:

For reference, my level was 12. No one appears to debate that I needed treatment.

The controversy has arisen over some of those in between groups, like those in the 20-40 range. Some people say that they need more, but if they lack clear symptoms and hover around 35, is that really true?

To take it a step further, some people with aches and pains just start taking Vitamin D assuming that they are deficient with no testing at all. This is where things start to go off the rails a bit.

Step 5: The backlash

Okay, so now we’ve got people on supplements for levels that may or may not be dangerous, and bottles flying off the shelves at stores to treat people who may not have a deficiency. That’s when some people start to say “okay, pump the brakes here”.

What was a miracle cure for people with clear symptoms and a definitive deficiency now moves to something of questionable benefit for many many others. That’s when you get doctors who start eyerolling at things, rightly or wrongly.

Now all of this isn’t to say that I object to supplements, or people trying to find things that work. I don’t. That’s a good thing.  However, for whatever reason, we do seem to forget that many supplements or medications are only miracles when someone is really not doing well. If you look at the controversy over statins for example, it’s clear that much of it got stirred up when doctors started prescribing them to people with very few risk factors. The evidence that they work for those with high risk of heart attacks or stroke are pretty good, the evidence that they work for people with low risk is not great. I think we all want to believe that something that can take someone at high risk/severe pain back to normal will help those with mild risk/mild pain get back their too, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

I think this comes back to our weird tendency to assume all relationships are linear. Just another reminder that you can’t assume that. Now excuse me, I’m going to get a bit of sun.

Bilingualism in Units of Measure

Well, I’m back from Germany and everything went quite well, except for one little incident with a spontaneous bloody nose brought on by the descent in to the Atlanta airport. Thankfully there’s a bathroom before you actually have to go through customs in Atlanta (there was not in Stuttgart), because I’m pretty sure the border patrol folks would have been less than impressed at my attempts to clean myself up with my leftover bottled water and that weird mesh they cover the complimentary pillow with. Good times.

It was a fun trip overall, and my lack of German didn’t end up making a difference. The town we were in was a college town, so nearly everyone spoke English as a second language. It was a little interesting though, as it was clear very few people we talked to were used to conversing with native English speakers (we saw quite a few people conversing in English where it was clear they were both ESL with different primary languages), which led to some fascinatingly idiosyncratic translation issues. For example, one of the people we spent the most time with clearly only knew the pronoun “he” and applied it to everything. The sign above the coat rack in our hotel informed us “We are not responsible for your wardrobe”, which didn’t quite come off as I believe they intended it. Not judging of course, since it’s all better than my forays in to other languages, but I actually love seeing where the unusual phrasing comes up.

Anyway, while thinking about various translation issues, I started thinking a little bit about units of measure. There were a few times over the course of the week where distances or volumes came up, and I was interested to see that I have minimal problems translating kilometers to miles/pounds to kilograms/liters to quarts or vice versa. Part of this is just general quick mental math, but I did realize that I’m actually pretty comfortable in thinking in either the metric system or the US/imperial system. My engineering degree and lab work both used a lot of metric system units, and being a runner keeps you familiar with 5k and 10k distances, which make all the distance translations pretty straightforward.

The only unit I have real trouble with is temperature. I simply cannot think in Celsius. Every time I see a temperature in Celsius I have to spend quite a bit of time calculating before I get to the right ballpark. I’m not sure why this is, though I suspect it’s something about the simultaneous change in the magnitude of a degree and the reference numbers. Somehow trying to doing both at once throws me off.

I’m curious how many people are actually comfortable in both sets of units. I’m guessing there’s a strong influence of profession here.

On a related note, here’s the history of the US relationship to the metric system as told by NIST.

On an unrelated note, here’s a map of Europe and what each region calls Germany:

Apparently this is directly correlated with which occupants of Germany invaded which country first, though I can’t confirm that.

Weird Weather on Patriots’ Day

Well folks, tomorrow is Patriots’ Day/Marathon Monday here in Massachusetts, which means the kind of lousy weather we’re having is going to affect the Boston Marathon runners. That’s a pity, but I’m pleased that the weather was at least okay yesterday, as my son went to his first major league game with his dad and grandfather. Since he’s being raised in a mixed household (I’m a Red Sox fan as is his grandfather, his father is an Orioles fan), he went with an Orioles shirt/Red Sox hat outfit that apparently was quite a hit with the crowd. My husband was good natured about it, until he got stopped by the MASN camera crew who were wandering around trying to find a few Orioles fans in Fenway. He refused to risk being on an Orioles broadcast with a child in a Red Sox hat, so he pulled his spare Orioles hat out of his coat pocket and our kiddo got his TV debut. We haven’t been able to find the clip, but we’re still looking.

Anyway, with the weather going downhill today, my Dad and I started musing about the worst marathon weather we could remember. I mentioned 2012 when it got so hot that they proactively offered to defer entries, and my Dad mentioned that in 1976 it hit 96 degrees. This led me to a page on the Boston Athletic Association’s website about all the weird weather they’ve gone through over the years.

A few highlights:

  • 5 different years saw snow fall on the marathon
  • 1939 saw a partial eclipse
  • 3 years have seen driving rain
  • 1927 saw heat (84 degrees) and a newly paved road that melted under their feet
  • At least 4 marathons have been run in 90+ degree weather

I’m hoping that our weird weather gives hometown girl Shalene Flanagan an edge, as I’m cheering hard for her. The last time someone from Massachusetts won the Boston Marathon was Alberto Salazar in 1982, I think we’re due.

One interesting tidbit I never knew about Patriots’ Day: in Maine, it’s legally “Patriot’s Day”, which makes me incredibly happy. That is going to be my go to excuse if I screw it up at any point going forward.